The Block Method: Writing Scientific Papers Without Tears

One of the hardest, and effort-consuming parts of doing science is writing papers. Why is that? In part, because it genuinely does take effort to think through the arguments and lay out your work in a clear and logical way.

But in other large part, it is because of how the system is set up and what expectations (format) it generated for a scientific paper. The problem is, it became a long essay that simultaneously caters to audiences with vastly different expertise and interests. In your field, out of field, general audience, novices and experts, professors and students, etc.

I came up with a way to streamline this process and the idea is simple and intuitive – write in very short blocks of text, without worrying about the rest. Also, don’t think of it as a linear text, an essay. It is really just a collection of blocks that you can toss around, skip – or add, as you go. Rest assured, most readers do the same – they skip large parts of your paper and look for specific information only!

The Working paper can be found here:

I have been working on this for a while, and got it to the stage of a working paper, which I think is useful for students and anyone who is writing research papers. The working paper stage is also where I can solicit feedback, expand the initial library of blocks etc.

I may eventually publish it in a more traditional sense, but really – I hope it is already useful! In my group we have been using it for a year. And while writing (and finishing) papers is still hard, I think this method brings order to the chaos of this process and helps move things along. As you only need to write 1-2 blocks per day to finish the whole draft in 1-2 weeks!

Postdoc positions

We are looking for several postdocs to work in a collaborative cluster at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Positions are available in my group, and in the groups of Michael Hatridge (Pitt) and Benjamin Hunt (CMU). The range of projects is impressive – from spin liquids to scalable qubits designs and from nanowires to van der Waals heterostructures.

See this page for more information and for how to apply:

Multiple postdoctoral positions in experimental quantum materials, devices and circuits

Kapitza pendulum

So you are in recent past a glorious leader of a mighty experimental lab, like myself. And then you find yourself without a lab, without students to boss around – because your lab is shutdown by a virus. What do you do? You are still the same person, hungry for power and new discoveries delivered to you daily on a platter. A combo platter… From that place on campus that is closed… Ah, damn!

Anyways, now my only lab is a bunch of lego’s and my only student is a five-year old. What can you do with legos? Oh, tons of things. For starters, you can cool them down in your dilution refrigerator! Except… Oh well.

Second best? You can build a Kapitza pendulum. What is it you may ask? It is the kind of pendulum that you shake and it stands up, seemingly defying gravity. According to Wikipedia, it is magic. It takes a five year old about 15 minutes to build, but they need a little help getting gears inside. And it gives about 3 minutes of uninterrupted joy. All in all, about 20 minutes passed, not bad! (You can enjoy this at any age and possibly for much longer)

All the credit goes to Matt A. Robertson, who designed the device and created these amazing lego instructions while working at Texas A&M with Artem Abanov. Making this project brought memories of the old days when you could just hop on a plane and visit awesome people at another campus, talk physics with them for a whole day… And they would show you their lego’s.

Technical notes for if you build this. 1) There is a link that you can use to purchase all blocks you need for this, but it does not include one – item 2730. 2) The part that sticks out to the side is a handle to hold the device. The assembly is designed for a left handed person but it can be mirrored.

Share your negative results!

It is a busy time. Maybe you are exhausted from zoom-partying all night. Or maybe you have kids. Maybe you are a theorist and you did not notice anything strange. Or perhaps your lab is shut down, like mine is, and you are trying to stay productive.

So try this: think if you have results in your notebooks that you would normally not publish. Not because they are low quality or incomplete – though you may want to start looking at those if the shutdown stretches for months and you get hungry.

I am talking about negative results. In physics, we are wired to only share the positive, the breakthroughs! We get a mental Pavlov dog zap when we think about results that are anything but the rosiest of achievements. In other words, we think that physics is an Instagram account.

In fact, negative results advance physics. They are very important. They save people time, they complete our understanding, they help us find the correct path forward. This is obvious, right? So it should not be scary to share them, and it should not be considered a waste of time. Do it now when your lab is closed, but also do it when it reopens.

It can be a paper where you present results opposite to another paper, like we just did or like these people did a few years ago. It can provide an alternative explanation for an interesting result. It can be a broad negative result that is aimed at opening a discussion within a field of study. And it can be in a top journal, like this Science paper from Penn State. There are many examples: a paper that shows how researchers themselves overlooked something. A paper that digs at the foundations of a topic with a long distinguished history. They all make physics better!

Share your negative results. You already put effort in doing those experiments or those calculations. You thought about it and discussed them with your colleagues. Others also deserve to know. And you will get credit for this. They do get noticed. The next generation will learn from your findings, and they will do better science than we could do.

I made a short movie

Two years ago I had a fantastic experience. It was a 4-day essay film course offered by the Derek Jarman Lab. Jarman Lab is connected to the University of Pittsburgh through its founder Professor Colin Maccabe. They came from London to teach us how to use film as means of communicating research. Everything had to be finished in just four days which also included some lecture time about the essay genre and documentary filmmaking. Through this course I learned a lot, I met amazing people and had a great time.

I chose to make a film about our research process. It is based on reality but it does not correspond to real events. One thing I learned about documentaries is that the director or producer has enormous power to steer or create narrative. This is very different from scientific papers where facts are supposed to be front and center.

I always planned to go back an re-cut my project, tune the sound levels and fix glitches. But I realized that Jarman Lab already have it on their website. So why not share it here?

As we were wrapping up, I had no time to add credits. But they are so due! Thanks to my actors Arash Mahboobin, Kelsey Cameron, Lily Ford, Bomin Zhang.

Special effects are by Bartek Dziadosz. Him and Lily were our teachers. They are terrific!

Music in the film is by Devon Tipp, who composed it while thinking about Majorana research. This music project deserves a separate blog post!

A Holiday Fairytale

‘T was the night before Christmas, and a Hannukah night. 
At the same time as Kwanzaa also happened have might… 

Gather round, children, for a tale of a little boy – not five years has he spent on this Earth in grad school. This little boy has been very good, he worked the hardest he could – and by year’s end he has submitted his very first paper to arxiv!

Feeling good, feeling proud – candles lit, blessings said 
He drank milk, brushed his teeth and was headed to bed. 

At this moment of peace and calm – an email arrived! It was from a world famous scientist. The scientist wrote that he read the boy’s paper! “With interest”! Oh! What a wonderful honor – thought the boy – for such a genius, who famously lived in a very tall tower of pure ivory – to have even glanced at my paper! 

The boy continued reading:

“I worked hundreds of years in the same field as you.
And the papers I’ve written are a million and two.
But of them, dear Sir, to my utmost dismight,
Every one, except twenty, you have failed to cite!”

The boy felt terrible. Has he been naughty? Was his h-index two sizes too small? Will he not get presents? Did they even get presents in their religion? He could not sleep. He started adding all the missing citations to his manuscript. 

“I should cite all the others who have worked very hard!”
And his small paper grew… Soon he needed a cart…

But then a magical fairy appeared. “Don’t be sad, I have a spell just for you”. And the fairy hacked into the webcam of famous scientist’s laptop. The scientist was typing and typing frantically. He was sending emails to all the people who posted their papers on arxiv that day.

“You see my dear friend” the fairy told “citations are not a form of respect, and they are not for giving credit. They are a tool to help understand the paper better. Excessive citing can make little readers confused, because they wouldn’t know which papers they should look up.”

The boy thought long and hard. He decided that the famous scientist is probably very lonely in his tall ivory tower. And the boy invited him to give a talk at their monthly graduate student seminar. The scientist agreed because there were cookies, hot chocolate and marshmallows.

University of Pittsburgh Physics ranked #1 in the world

Much has been said about the utmost vital need to be highly ranked. All sorts of important people, from prospective students to governments, take note of the one number to which your program is distilled by a prestigious, serious and rigorous ranking agency. At Pitt we did not enjoy particularly high rankings so far, which made us very-very sad.

Until today when we got a shot of awesome news – not only are we ranked high, but we are NUMBER ONE, in the WORLD (In the Universe most likely for that matter).

University of Pittsburgh Physics and Astronomy Department was ranked first in the world for the quality of coffee from a department coffee machine.

To the skeptics out there who might be wondering – how has this ranking been established? The same way as the US News report ranks graduate schools – we asked a few people. The US News survey department chairs in your discipline (let’s say physics) from US universities “name top physics/condensed matter/particle/astro graduate programs”. Some of them, maybe 30%, reply, and they do some math (likely addition and division) with those numbers, then they publish them for everyone to contemplate and make their life choices. So the ranking of graduate schools is based on the opinions of a few people who likely never been to most schools, haven’t seen their labs, haven’t read their papers, didn’t talk to their faculty and students…

Inspired by this great system, we did the same. We asked. We did not have time to ask all department chairs in the country, since we only had the idea this morning, so we just asked ourselves. But we’ve been to MANY departments. And we drank their coffee. And we are definitely number one, in physics, in this category.

(If you include other departments, e.g. chemistry, we would probably have to yield to the University of Oregon, though we are still to visit. If you include regular coffee shops, some of which are in the Physics buildings, we will probably also go down in ranking, quite far. If you ask department chairs to rank coffee machines, and then average their replies, you will get Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, Caltech etc.)

Faculty position in Quantum at Pitt

Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department at Pitt has just announced an assistant professor search in the area of nanoscale electronics & photonics with emphasis on quantum computing.

ECE is across the street from Physics, and while this position will be the first in the quantum field for Pitt engineers, a successful candidate will be working next to a thriving cluster of quantum physics research at Pitt, as well as at nearby Carnegie Mellon University. With two state-of-the-art cleanroom facilities, supercomputers, and hopefully several more subsequent hires in quantum computing across the two campuses.

Applications are due by Jan. 7, 2019, although candidates will continue to be considered until positions are filled. Please submit a CV, research and teaching statements, and contact information for at least three references, all in a single PDF file, to

New equipment has arrived!

Labs get a lot of equipment when they just get set up. If you scroll back in this blog you will see how over the course of several years we went from an empty room to an entangled maze of pumping lines, cables and wires held in place by copious quantities of duct tape. But once a lab has been set up, and the startup funds have run out, a stationary period commences – and it can last for a loooong-long time, until the original stuff starts to break down.

Well, not the case in our brave lab! We just got a piece of equipment which inspired us to work harder, put idiotic smiles on our faces, started numerous stimulating discussions and is just generally awesome.

Here it is:

I am talking, of course, about our new bottomless portafilter. A portafilter is a holder with a black handle where you load and tamp ground coffee in order to extract espresso. A ‘bottomless’ portafilter has the nozzle on the bottom machined off so that you can see with your own eyes how espresso is formed, whether liquid is uniformly going through the basket or gushing through a crack in your puck, whether there is a lot of crema and so on. This has improved the quality of our espresso truly to the 3rd generation coffee shop level, and it has already improved the skills of our baristas-in-training.

Oh… and we have also received two additional dilution refrigerators, but I suppose that deserves a separate blog post.


First PhD defended!

Zhaoen Su (PhD 2017) is the first member of our group. Literally, he started in the summer of 2012 before I arrived to Pittsburgh. Together with others from the first cohort he built our research program from scratch – an empty room for a lab, and no cleanroom process for device fabrication.

Zhaoen first focused on Ge/Si nanowire devices. Through hard work he made great progress and achieved supercurrents and tunable double quantum dots. Facing an uphill battle with charge instabilities, he decided to transpose his project to InSb wires. He got excited about quantum dots coupled to superconducting contacts and realized Andreev molecules, which we have already written up. As Zhaoen begins his new position in the Bay Area, there are still 2 exciting experiments that he has performed waiting to be published.


You can see him holding a mini Cathedral of Learning in the gif above. Congratulations, Zhaoen, and good luck in Silicon Valley!

Quantum Computing for Nerds From Other Fields

Here are videos from the Quantum Computing Session at the Frontiers of Science Symposium organized by NAS last year. This event brings together young researchers from all fields of study to explain to each other what they are working on. So, if you are a quantum physicist, you will not learn from these videos. If you are my grandmother, same – unless you are my grandmother with a PhD. If you are a biologist, an astrophysicist or a historian – these vidoes may be interesting for you.

Quantum Computing – Krysta Svore, Microsoft Research from Kavli Frontiers of Science on Vimeo.

Quantum Computing – Sergey Frolov, University of Pittsburgh from Kavli Frontiers of Science on Vimeo.

Quantum Computing – Aram W. Harrow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology from Kavli Frontiers of Science on Vimeo.

Thanks to Emanuel Gull and Daniela Oliveira for organizing the session.

Postdoc positions available in Frolov lab

Postdoctoral position in experiment quantum nanoscience is available at Frolov lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Research topics include but are not limited to non-Abelian statistics and topological qubits with Majorana fermions; interacting topological phases and work towards the discovery of parafermions; quantum simulation with semiconductor nanostructures such as quantum dots in nanowires. Typical projects involve a collaboration with a graduate student, extensive use of on-campus facilities at Petersen Institute for Nanoscience and Engineering, and low temperature transport measurements in dilution refrigerators. Interested candidates should email their CV and describe their interests in an email to

New Trends in Trending

Today Nature Publishing House has announced the creation of a new and long overdue journal dedicated to publishing the ‘most hottest’ high impact research. The new magazine, called ‘New Trends in Trending’ is dedicated to publishing results that would not have been otherwise published in any other journal for at least five years into the future. Alongside this so-called ‘hyper-original research’, the new monthly will feature a horoscope, and comes with a lottery to win an Island off the coast of Kamchatka.

“Our aim is the impact factor of 1000” wrote Chief Editor Dr. Quickley R. Lookthrough in his first editorial “and our market study tells us this is how we get there”.

Manuscript submission guidelines require that along with the scientific title of each submitted manscript, the authors provide a ‘clickbait’ version of the title ‘to facilitate the broadest dissemination of to the most general audience possible’. A ‘clickbait’ title is meant to convey the premise of the work, but leave the conclusion concealed such that the reader is encouraged to click on the link to find out more. In order to assist the authors, the following clickbait title examples are provided:

They were measuring a graphene device, and then THIS happened!

Thirty-two line plots with error bars that will blow your mind. (You won’t believe the number seventeen!)

Two electrons did whaaat?

If you are doing science and you are older than 3 and younger than 98 you are in for a big surprise

Jaw-dropping discovery hits the field of dissipative porous multiphase systems like a hurricane

These quantum systems thought nobody was watching…

Why this new scaling theory is breaking the internet

Experimentalists feel stupid for not doing these measurements

Don’t read this if you DO NOT want a Nobel Prize

Group website

Sometime during the first year of our group I asked one of my graduate students to put together a group website. “Let’s first finish our first paper” he replied. This attitude shows how seriously we take websites. Not just anything deserves to have a website. Only things of staggering beautymind-blowing webdesign or the friendliest user interface can be websites. Still,

Now that our group has fired out the first series of papers, and even though the papers are still painfully making their way through the antiquated journal system, it is time to unveil a modest yet informative little website.

As a side effect, since this blog no longer represents our whole group my hands are now officially untied, and I can proclaim the most ridiculous thoughts here.

First paper finished

High critical magnetic field superconducting contacts to Ge/Si core/shell nanowires

Screenshot 2016-10-10 23.13.27.png

My group has crossed an important milestone today – we have finalized and uploaded to arxiv our first publication. We are working on several of them simultaneously, and by the luck of the draw the first one out is a paper in which we share our experience making a particular type of nanowire superconducting.

The one and only good thing about writing papers is that it stimulates the authors to think about the experiment they have done in a special way: to find explanations for strange values and effects that only come forward when you give it that extra careful look. That tenth reading that you do under duress of scientific correctness. When we transition into the era of open science, we will share all our results on the fly, and look like fools for all our misconceptions and mistakes, but we will correct each other and move forward much faster. We will parallelize our intellects to think about each other’s work and won’t need to read the same text over and over again not to miss an embarassing mistake.

For now we just keep writing papers.

Should arxiv have ranking and annotation features? is a great resource where many, if not the majority, of results in my field appear long before formal publication in journals. In fact, I don’t have a habit of reading physics journals anymore, but I daily look through new postings on arxiv.I also have two papers submitted only to arxiv, and not to any old-fashioned journal.

That said, arxiv is stuck in the 1990’ies with its focus on lists, TeX, its awkward search and lack of any social network functions. Since it is such a convergence point for the physics community, its backwardness has grown into a serious limiting factor for the free and open scientific process. In other words, what it offers – namely instant publication – is better than what journals offer, but this has in the meantime become the new normal. While what it does not offer is holding us back.

This can be seen in the new massive survey that arxiv has conducted of its own users. In a long list of boring questions about tiny incremental improvements to the website, there is a very important category they called ‘New Services’. You will see that over 55% of survey respondents say that ranking and comment functions, familiar from social networks, reddits, and just, ahem, the entire internet, are either ‘Very Important’ or ‘Somewhat Important’. A smaller majority has just taken the UK out of the EU!

Yet the arxiv program director at Cornell Oya Rieger writes about it as an even split between those who are strongly for these features (~35%) and those strongly against (~35%). She goes on an on about caution and caveats, which basically means that her and the arxiv team are not going to do this on their own. She does mention that the support for these features is stronger among younger users, so there may be a generational divide at play here, and the arxiv team is on the wrong side of this divide from the historical point of view.

Think about it: all of arxiv content is open to the entire internet. If somebody makes a different website which implements these annotation, ranking, search, communication features nicely, and if the community starts using that service, then not having these features as part of itself will be akin to hiding one’s head in the sand – ignoring the new norm that just grew around you. Now, this has not happened yet, but the demand for it is clearly present, as the survey results demonstrate. When this finally happens, it will be the beginning of the end of arxiv, as at that point it will be easier to submit your work to the new website where it can be instantly evaluated, discussed, ranked, categorized and improved through community interactions.